A glance at the sneaker section in any athletic store suggests that our society has awakened to the importance of aerobic exercise. And yet, resistance training – the term for strength work using weights, elastic bands, or the body’s own weight – has been found to be highly effective in preventing and treating chronic disease.
“Resistance training is the bastard child of physical activity,” says Joseph T. Ciccolo, co-editor of a new book, Resistance Training for the Prevention and Treatment of Chronic Disease (Taylor & Francis Group). “It’s too often thought of as an add-on” to aerobic exercise, and its benefits are less widely recognized.
Ciccolo, an assistant professor of applied physiology at Teachers College, Columbia University and director of TC’s Applied Exercise Psychology Laboratory; and William J. Kraemer of the University of Connecticut, co-edited the book, a review of existing research in the field (much of it quite new) and a plea for more scholars to study the potential of resistance training and more health care providers to recommend it. They write that strength training is highly valuable for treating a dozen major chronic conditions – including cancer, diabetes, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s, and depression and anxiety.
For example, as he and Kraemer point out in their introduction, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ physical activity guidelines, issued in 2008, recommend weekly amounts of moderate or vigorous aerobic exercises and “muscle-strengthening activities” at least twice a week, as these “provide additional health benefits.”
Perhaps partly as a result of this marked preference among experts for aerobic exercise, according to the 2011 National Health Information Survey (NHIS), 48.4% of American adults met the guidelines for aerobic activity – hardly an encouraging number, but far better than the mere 24.1% who met the guidelines for resistance training and the 20.6% who met the guidelines for both.
The numbers on research on physical activity are similarly skewed. “There are 15 or 20 aerobic exercise studies for every resistance training study,” Ciccolo says. “Partly that’s because aerobic exercise is easier to research, since everyone knows how to walk.”
The emphasis on aerobic exercise is particularly counter-productive for the growing number of people with physical limitations that prevent them from performing it. “We’re moving into a time when a lot of people have things that keep them from doing aerobic exercise, such as arthritis, or a bum ankle or knee,” Ciccolo says. “The message that people should primarily focus on aerobic exercise is a poor one for an aging population.”
Meanwhile, resistance training can help people with certain chronic conditions. Ciccolo and Kraemer summarize research on the benefits of resistance training on arterial health for sufferers of cardiovascular disease, on endurance and ability to do daily tasks for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and on strength gains and pain alleviation for fibromyalgia sufferers.
Breakthroughs in other areas of medical research are facilitating studies that could not previously have been conducted, Ciccolo says. For instance, improvements in medication now make resistance training possible for HIV/AIDS patients that may provide some distinct health benefits. Advances in imaging technologies could confirm the beneficial impact of resistance training on the brain, with positive implications for numerous conditions.
Ciccolo doesn’t want to spark a war over the relative merits of aerobic exercise and resistance training. Both kinds of activity clearly are beneficial. But right now, “we’re missing a big chunk of people who can benefit,” he says. “If physical activity is a major message, we should promote all forms of it.”